As the prelude to Les Contes d’Hoffmann began, the New National Theatre, Tokyo curtain rose to reveal ten sets of fluorescent white disembodied arms and legs, swirling in patterns below a cloud of suspended bar paraphernalia, in the same fluorescent white. It set the tone for the visual bonanza that is Philippe Arlaud’s production – two  decades old but fresh as a daisy.

Yoko Yasui (Olympia)
© Masahiko Terashi

The ten dancers, in various guises, energise the ensemble scenes that follow, as Folies Bergère hoofers in Luther’s tavern, blending so smoothly into Spalanzani’s party guests that it feels like the whole room is seething, dancing with vigour in the Venice Carnival. 

Andrea Uhmann’s costumes are what really make the staging, starting with Yuka Kobayashi’s transformation from the Muse (in flowing ball white ballgown) into Nicklausse (music hall top hat and tails, still shining white). There’s smartly crafted Belle Époque for the tavern, psychedelia for the Olympia scene, gorgeous commedia dell’arte for Venice. Only in the Antonia act does the effect fall flat, with the five male dancers whirling as demonic fiddlers around Antonia in an unappealing white Victorian dress. Even here, however, Dr Miracle’s evil Renaissance physician’s garb provides eye candy, as does Antonia’s mother as a 1920s vamp.

Leonardo Capalbo (Hoffmann)
© Masahiko Terashi

The three lead roles were very strong. Kobayashi was a real eye opener as Nicklausse, with crystal clear French diction and a delicious tone that you could listen to all evening. She displayed solid support in her lower register and high notes that could cut through the full ensemble. She was the bedrock of several ensemble numbers, including the famous barcarolle. Egils Siliņš was in his best imperious form as the four villains, providing the perfect combination of malice and elegance, his commanding tone and powerful upper register reminding one that he sings Wotan. He sang a real showstopper in “Scintille, diamant”. Leonardo Capalbo oozed charisma as Hoffmann, starting with an excellent ballad of Kleinzach and consistently credible veering between the extremes of the poet’s depressive personality. Capalbo’s vocal quality didn’t have the same consistency; at its best, he was resonant and lyrical, but there several moments where he tightened up, giving a slightly constrained timbre.

Egils Silins (Coppélius) and Leonardo Capalbo (Hoffmann)
© Masahiko Terashi

There was excellent singing from the rest of the ensemble, all Japanese, with many vocal parts to enjoy. The four heroines were cast with different sopranos (Stella getting a brief role, doubled with Antonia’s mother); of these, Chikako Ohsumi’s viciously sweet-toned Giulietta was particularly enjoyable. Yoko Yasui hit all Olympia’s high notes in the middle and acted the mechanical doll to perfection, with hilarious body language when her clockwork ran down and was then wound up (to equally hilarious sound effects). Masahiko Hare stood out as the cringing Spalanzani; it’s not a part that usually makes waves but Hare was both strong-voiced and watchable. Hideyuki Aochi entertained hugely as Crespel’s servant Frantz.

Chikako Ohsumi (Giulietta) and Yuka Kobayashi (Nicklausse)
© Masahiko Terashi

Marko Letonja conjured plenty of instrumental colour from the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, high spots being the sonorous brass underpinning to Siliņš, which reinforced the Wagnerian sense, and brilliant flashes of hispanic colour in Act 3. For the most part, Letonja kept the orchestra on a tight rein, maintaining energy but running no risk of overwhelming the singers. At the end of Act 3, though, there was an instrumental reprise of the barcarolle to cover the scene change from Venice back to Nuremberg, where Letonja let the orchestra have their head and they leapt at the chance. Never have the Venetian orchestral waters lapped so limpidly around their palazzos and gondolas; never have the flutes hovered so airily above. This was orchestral schmaltz of the most delightful kind.

Chikako Ohsumi (Giulietta) and Leonardo Capalbo (Hoffmann)
© Masahiko Terashi

In the end, though, what made this production so special is that all these elements came together to paint a vivid picture. With no directorial additions other than vivid visuals and purposeful stage movement, Arlaud immersed the audience in the hero’s decline from energetic youthful ingénu to world-weary drunkard. In this version, there is nothing left at the end but for Hoffmann to shoot himself. The final chorus, presented as a funeral march, was powerfully sung and left the audience choking.

This is one of the best productions of Hoffmann you’ll see. There were cameras in the hall, so if you don’t have the good fortune to be in Tokyo this week, watch this space for future streaming.